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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000) 329-369

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Henna and Hip Hop: The Politics of Cultural Production and the Work of Cultural Studies

Sunaina Maira *



"South Asian guys give more respect to African Americans than to whites because they think the style is cool. The guys look up to them because it's down."

--Sharmila, New York University undergraduate, 1997

"Look! She's wearing a sari! Even Indian fashion is in these days."

--Indian American woman pointing to the draped figure of the Statue of Liberty, in the filmChutney Popcorn (dir. Nisha Ganatra)


India is "in" these days, appearing on the style map of trendspotters in fashion and music in the late 1990s in the U.S. and Europe. This turn-of-millennium fascination has produced a new Orientalization of India that recreates the countercultural appropriations of Indian styles from thirty years ago, through the consumption of imported goods that signify an exotic "cool." In its February 20, 2000 issue, the New York Times magazine, "Fashions of the Times," opened to a double-page advertisement for Liz Claiborne, featuring a blonde model in a silk sarong made from a gold-bordered pink sari and sporting a mehndi (henna) design on her foot. 1 The caption reads, "Let the sun shine in." A sixties' "innocence" [End Page 329] oozes out of the image of the barefooted, white woman in a red barn-like room, the chiffon curtain billowing languorously in the window. Hippiedom meets haute couture, with the appropriation of Indian fabrics and motifs by American and European fashion houses and multinational design companies. The Macy's store in New York devoted its entire window display to Indo-chic in July 2000, with giant television screens running clips from "Bollywood" Hindi films, to the amazement of passersby on Broadway treated to this industry fashion trend as street spectacle.

The recent mainstreaming of Indian style provokes complex questions: what do young South Asians in the U.S. think of this explosion of Indo-chic? What does it mean for South Asian women to see Madonna sporting a bindi on MTV, or find mehndi ("temporary tattoo" ) kits and bindi packets ("body jewelry") on sale in Urban Outfitters? These [End Page 330] questions engage in the debates over what Andrew Ross calls "style tribalism": "Popular style, at its most socially articulate, appears at the point where commonality ends and communities begin, fractioned off into the geography of difference, even conflict." 2 At certain moments, as when new style tribes emerge or the visual markers associated with one style subculture are taken on by another, these underlying "social values" come under scrutiny, or are simply absorbed into already existing "geographies of difference."

South Asian Americans are not only on the receiving, or rather giving, end of cultural appropriation; "we" borrow too. And in the 1990s, South Asian American youth, particularly in urban areas such as New York City, have drawn on the cultural idiom of black and Latino youth, consuming hip hop music and style to craft a uniquely second-generation subculture. This adoption of hip hop by South Asian American youth offers important insights into the racialization of Asian American youth in the 1990s, underscoring how their ethnic and national identification processes use cultural commodities in ways peculiar to the racial politics and late capitalistic economy of the U.S., and of New York City in particular. As with the consumption of Indian style by white American youth, the recreation of hip hop by Asian American youth suggests that as commodities cross cultural and national boundaries, the "deflections, rejections and subversions that can take place at each point in the economic cycle of production-exchange-consumption" have to be grounded in particular relationships between the "local" and "global," that is, in specific instances of cross-cultural consumption. 3

Youth cultural production and consumption is an important site where particular possibilities for crossing racial boundaries are imagined, but also rejected, and where ideologies of gender are performed. This approach draws on the...


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